Updated November 18th, 2017.
How we choose to travel may be more important now than ever before to preserve and respect the local communities we visit. Responsible tourism options and eco-friendly travel choices are popular backpacking trends which require some serious attention.
Images on social media of polluted beaches in Bali Indonesia, of elephant riding in Thailand, of the state of the Great Wall of China, and of the heartbreaking orphanage voluntourism business in Cambodia are all too worrying and are only a few examples of a long list of consequences of mass tourism. Situations globally such as the vast disparity of wealth, the abuse of vulnerable children and the destruction of entire communities be it from war or natural disaster have gained attention and, as a tourist, it is impossible to ignore the often-in-your-face inequality.
There is an overwhelming amount of information out there on ‘how to be an eco-friendly traveler’ or a ‘responsible tourist’ and this can make it feel complicated when trying to make a start. When you are backpacking, there are already a number things to consider and manage including your safety, your luggage, where you go and what you plan to do. Here are my five personal recommendations on how to be an eco-friendly and responsible traveler with ease!
Eco-friendly travel in 5 easy steps
1. Don’t Stress!
Eco-friendly travel shouldn’t be a burden; a little research will lead you to simple and effective ways to start integrating responsible tourism practices into your natural travel plans. The concept of eco-friendly tourism shouldn’t ruin your day and it is important to remember that every little step taken towards making a difference counts for something. Praise yourself for the small changes. As a traveler, I try my best to make myself aware of the short and long term concerns of where I am going through research and local conversations. Once I have an understanding, I can make appropriate choices such as where to stay and where to offer help.
2. Pack Less
Have you ever heard the saying ‘pack half the clothes and take twice the money’? Here are the three reasons why this saying made me want to pack less:
Hostel life is easier (less worry when it comes to packing and unpacking your backpack), it’s cheaper (packing light saves you time and money without checked baggage and reduces your overall environmental footprint) it’s safer (traveling light means less weight in the backpack on your shoulders and no concern for loosing valuable items). If you need something, you can most often purchase it locally and you will have room for purchasing local souvenirs before you return home.
When moving from place to place I have chosen to donate my clothes or shoes, my rain jackets, books and even one of my backpacks to a local NGO, you can ask the staff at your hostel how best to ensure your now unwanted travel items don’t end up in the bin!
I found a few basics ways to reuse simple items when backpacking: Reusable plastic zip lock bags (great for packing personal items or healthy snacks for the journey), Reusable water bottles (to refill with clean water and reduce one time plastic water bottle waste), Clothing such as a sarong or scarf (double as a towel/blanket and create less water waste from excess laundry). Reusing items allows for packing lighter and eliminates plastic bags and bottles therefore creating less waste. I always felt better when I could reuse items especially in areas of the world with underdeveloped waste management or non-existent recycling services.
4. Volunteer Responsibly
Volunteering your time is an opportunity for both yourself and the community to learn and grow. Volunteering can drive social change and development in education, health and security and help you as a traveler find a new passion for working with other cultures.
Before volunteering here are a few things I like to consider:
1. Think child safe and be informed of orphanage tourism (many orphanages are created to profit directly from tourists and do not advocate for the rights of the child or family)
2. Don’t support animal tourism (avoid zoo’s, riding mistreated elephants, patting chained up tigers and buying gifts made from illegal animal items such as ivory or “exotic” medicines).
3. Check the project is sustainable. Ask the staff if the project contributes to the wants and needs of the local community.
It is relatively easy for a business to say that their projects are eco-friendly, sustainable, environmentally sound or non-profit. It is important to research what the individual projects are focusing on, where the funding is directed and to understand the local culture of the location you are planning on volunteering in. Be an informed tourist on the area you are visiting and make decisions that you think are in line with your own values and morals.
5 Eat In
This one is easy! Eating in as opposed to taking away is helpful for reducing plastic and paper waste and allows us to support local business and be environmentally friendly. When it comes to food and travel it can become complicated so here are my three thoughts on eating and travel:
1. Aim to eat local produce
2. Support local farmers
3. Eat more plants.
Fruits and Vegetables are seasonal and they grow when our bodies need them most. Local food is part of the traditional culture and the heart of the community and can be an active and exciting part of your travels. Local cooking schools run sustainable tours where travelers can go to the wet market, buy fresh daily produce and learn to cook traditional meals. Many cooking schools now encourage a “farm to table” approach and make use of local farmers, chefs and guides.
So, why more plants? The meat industry requires massive amounts of land, energy, water and feed for production and this is a large driver for the vegan movement. Basically, eating more plants is more sustainable for the planet. The increase in demand for meat means that the industry contributes massively to global warming, deforestation, poisonous fertilizers, excessive waste water, excessive feed production and of course unnecessary animal cruelty including exporting live produce. Overall, the individual tourist holds much of the power when it comes to choosing what they eat and deciding to reduce your daily consumption of animal products is a wonderful way to ensure eco-friendly travel. Many cultures embrace a vegetarian diet and traveling provides a unique opportunity to taste some of the best plant based cooking from around the world.
Finally, when it comes to responsible and eco-friendly travel, focus on a few small changes that you are willing to make, both at home and on the road and aim to form new habits each day. This could be as easy as walking instead of taking the bus or participating in a cooking class at a training school instead of visiting an orphanage for a day. If you are unsure of ways to communicate the purpose of responsible tourism with other travelers, set an example, your actions will generate interest and spark conversation.
Socially responsible, eco-friendly and sustainable travel requires us to pay attention to how we travel and offers us a chance to make a difference to the environment, the people we meet and shape our worldview for the future. Traveling responsibly feels good, it is an ongoing journey of life lessons and emotional change and with some simple adjustments, everyone can play their part through eco-friendly travel.
About the writer:
Cherie’s blog Travel For Change was founded due to the increasing need for the awareness of the growing voluntourism industry and the overwhelming percentage of orphanages operating as businesses in South East Asia. At the heart of Travel For Change lies a desire to raise awareness of the systems that create and fuel the cycle of poverty. Cherie and her companions at Travel for Change believe that responsible, eco-friendly travel is more than just a social trend, that it is imperative travelers adapt to a more conscious way of travel to ensure the protection of children in local communities. You can follow Cherie Julie on Instagram and Facebook.
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